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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Might Be Why Americans Hate Congress

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The media’s narrative about Congress is clear: It is unproductive, members care only about getting re-elected and they have failed to do their jobs.  

So it should come as no surprise that Americans believe Congress has been unproductive, that members don’t care about doing the right thing, but only about re-election and Congress is a mess.  

The average voter isn’t watching Congress closely enough to know how productive it is or how and why members make the decisions they do, but voters seem to have strong opinions about the legislative branch of government. Where do you think voters get their views about Congress’ productivity? How do they understand how members of Congress make decisions on legislation?  

I have met the enemy and it is us.  

Journalists and talking heads tell voters over and over that Congress is inept, even corrupt, and when we ask them what they think about Congress, they call Congress inept and even corrupt. And then we report back that Americans think Congress is inept and even corrupt. It’s a never-ending feedback loop that reinforces the conventional wisdom.  

“Congress on Track to be the Least Productive in Modern History,” NBC News proclaimed on July 31. Three days later, this headline appeared on the network’s website: “Poll: 74 Percent of Voters Say Congress Has Been Unproductive.” The Washington Post’s story the next day asked and answered, “How much do people hate Congress? Let us count the ways.” The article offered plenty of evidence that Americans have an “overwhelming distaste for Congress,” including a new NBC News/Marist College poll that found “just 22 percent of people would describe Congress as at least ‘somewhat productive.’”  

The item also cited Gallup and CBS News/New York Times polling that found people had little confidence in Congress and believe that a whopping 85 percent of respondents think lawmakers are interested in serving “special interests” instead of constituents.  

The article also cited a Public Policy Polling survey from early 2013 that found respondents had a higher opinion of cockroaches and lice than Congress.  

Congratulations are in order to those of us working in journalism and doing political analysis. We beat the stuffing out of Congress almost every day and — surprise! — Americans think Congress is filled with self-serving jerks who don’t do their jobs and care more about special interests than their constituents.  

If you think I am going to defend Congress, you are mistaken. I don’t much like the way things are working these days on Capitol Hill or in Washington, D.C., in general. I think there should be more negotiation, splitting the difference, compromise and log-rolling.  

Issues such as immigration (to say nothing of the current situation on the border), tax code changes, energy and health care obviously need addressing, but Congress is unable to deal with anything that is the least bit controversial. Of course there is a problem.  

In politics generally, not just in Congress, negotiation has come to mean surrender and compromise has become synonymous with defeat. And surrender and defeat aren’t outcomes the political parties, the ideological media and hot-button-issue-interest groups are willing to risk.  

Beating up on Congress has become such a national pastime for reporters, talking heads and partisans trying to demonize the opposition that many Americans now have a thoroughly distorted view of their government representatives and why members behave as they do.  

There are plenty of people on Capitol Hill who are trying to deal with the nation’s challenges, and even some who seem opposed to any compromise act this way because they believe it’s in their constituents’ and the nation’s best interests, not because they are trying to line their own pockets.  

Interestingly, some of the people who rant and rave about the failures of Congress have been among the most responsible for its current procedural problems. Yes, I’m talking about both the hosts and their predictable guests on MSNBC and their foils on the political right, whether in the tea party or the world of talk radio.  

It may be cute for PPP to report that 21 percent of people have a higher opinion of “meth labs” than of Congress, or that 26 percent have a higher opinion of North Korea than of Congress, but that tells you more about how people will answer a dumb survey question than about what people really think of the legislative branch.  

And if you happen to think that meth labs or North Korea are better than Congress, I don’t think you are worth talking to.  

There are plenty of reasons Congress has had a difficult time addressing the nation’s issues. Some of them involve the political parties and their leaders. Many are related to the demise of broad based parties, new technologies that undermine authority and leadership, and the increasingly diffuse nature of power, both in the media and in our campaign system.  

But counting the number of laws enacted and harping on gridlock in Washington doesn’t inform or educate, and it isn’t going to unite a divided country. Of course, the voters could encourage Washington to move toward compromise if they wanted. Just don’t hold your breath until they do — and don’t expect them to be much happier with the eventual compromises anyway.

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